There will be a partial solar eclipse Aug. 21. Here’s what you need to know.

VCU will distribute eclipse glasses and pinhole projectors at a viewing event at the Compass.

On Aug. 21, assuming it isn’t cloudy, Richmond will experience its most significant solar eclipse...
On Aug. 21, assuming it isn’t cloudy, Richmond will experience its most significant solar eclipse since 1970, with the moon blocking more than 85 percent of the sun.

On Aug. 21, assuming it isn’t cloudy, Richmond will experience its most significant solar eclipse since 1970, with the moon blocking more than 85 percent of the sun. Here are a few things you need to know:

Watch event on campus

Virginia Commonwealth University will host an eclipse viewing event from 1-4 p.m. at the Compass, outside James Branch Cabell Library. The event will take place during Welcome Week, VCU’s annual week of activities and events that marks the opening of the academic year. The timing is fortunate, said Reuban Rodriguez, Ed.D., associate vice provost and dean of student affairs.

“It’s nice that we’ll have students on campus,” Rodriguez said. “We’re hoping that as the height of the partial eclipse occurs, people can stop by the Compass and learn a little about the eclipse. We want people to be able to experience this event communally.” 

The Division of Student Affairs will be handing out eclipse glasses at the event and VCU Libraries will be distributing materials to create pinhole projectors. The glasses are the safest method for viewing the eclipse because they block ultraviolet light from the sun, said Evan Silverstein, M.D., associate program director of the Department of Ophthalmology at the VCU School of Medicine.

“During the eclipse it is never safe to look directly at the sun. The only proper way to look at the solar eclipse is with solar viewing glasses,” said Silverstein, also a pediatric ophthalmologist at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.

CHoR pediatric ophthalmologist Evan Silverstein shares more about how to protect your eyes and safely enjoy the eclipse.

Staring at the sun without these glasses, he said, can cause solar retinopathy — a scarring of the fovea in the back of the eye. This can cause severe and possibly permanent eye damage, Silverstein said.

Regular sunglasses won’t sufficiently protect eclipse viewers, either, said Robert Gowdy, Ph.D., associate chair in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“You do not want to do anything like pile up a whole bunch of sunglasses together. You don’t want to do anything like that,” Gowdy said. “Don’t use any homemade sunglass viewers, ever.”

According to NASA, the only time it is permissible to view a solar eclipse with the naked eye is during totality, brief moments when the moon’s shadow completely blocks the sun. This is important for Richmond-area viewers because ...

Richmond will not experience totality

Thousands of articles have been written about this eclipse, the first to cross the continental United States since 1918. The path of totality — a roughly 60-mile corridor in which the moon’s shadow will completely eclipse the sun’s disk — will cut through the U.S. on a gentle arc that begins just south of Portland, Oregon, and ends in Charleston, South Carolina.

Viewers within this path will experience quite an event, Gowdy said. The sky will darken, the temperature will drop. Night insects will start singing. 

“The Earth is turning at about 1,000 mph,” Gowdy said. “And so that eclipse patch comes at you at the speed of a jet plane. You can see it coming at you.”

But that won’t be happening in Richmond, which is about 300 miles from the path of totality. That’s pretty close in a celestial sense, but not helpful for locals hoping to walk outside and see this. Still, Richmond will experience a pretty significant partial eclipse, Gowdy said. 

“For hundreds of miles beyond [totality], you get partial eclipses,” Gowdy said. “It won’t get really dark and we won’t get to see the corona or anything. But it will be noticeably dimmer and if you have eclipse glasses or a box with a pinhole in it, you’ll be able to see the sun has a big piece taken out of it.”

Richmond will not experience totality — brief moments when the moon’s shadow completely blocks the sun, as seen here.
Richmond will not experience totality — brief moments when the moon’s shadow completely blocks the sun, as seen here.

A rare event

Heavy traffic is expected near the path of totality. The closest point for Richmond residents is east of Columbia, S.C., near Turbeville, about 330 miles south on Interstate-95. For eclipse chasers, Gowdy recommends a heavy dose of patience, and a hotel room already booked.

“If they want an eclipse they can [get to] by bus, this is the one,” he said. “But they should already have their reservations made. You will not be able to find a hotel room for that whole week.”

As for local totality purists unwilling or unable to travel, Gowdy advises consulting a calendar before skipping the Richmond eclipse experience. Though this isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event, a partial solar eclipse of this magnitude in an easily accessible area also doesn’t happen very frequently, he said. The city will experience similar moments in 2024, 2052 and 2078. The next total solar eclipse in Richmond won’t happen until Sept. 14, 2099. 

“Better start working out now,” Gowdy joked.

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